Tallinn, Jul 2017
The year is 1969. You and your team of surveyors have been stranded in the Himalayas without any equipment. Whilst seeking shelter you come across an isolated hut and decide to shelter… and stumble upon the fabled “Shambala”.
After the initial challenge of getting into the hut, what greets you is a well decorated room, with a number of beautiful intricacies, from hidden mechanisms to tributes from other fantasy fiction. Based on decor / theme alone I would have rated this room a 4.
An escape room lives or dies by the quality of its puzzles, however, and this room did not in my opinion meet the minimum mark for acceptable. A good clear structure emerged of how many individual puzzles needed solving. Of those, many had problems.
One had multiple interpretations (which afterwards the operator struggled to prove the solution required himself); one had multiple apparent solutions that appeared completely valid but were in fact false answers, which confused and annoyed us without any hint that we needed to look elsewhere; speakers of a particular European language were at a distinct advantage; one of the clues was so disguised I struggled to see it even when the operator pointed directly to it; and the final puzzle was simply far too long.
For this who simply want a fun atmosphere the room is entertaining. However it fails as an escape room.
While I agree with most of Sam’s criticisms, I liked Shambala a great deal more than he did.
Most games start with the usual briefing, with a reminder not to use force, a bit of backstory, and so on. Imaginaris dispensed with most of this and instead set the scene in the style of an old-fashioned storyteller, placing us in the scene by the light of a wavering lantern. From the outset there was a dedication to immersion and story and aesthetics that stood out and won me over.
The puzzles are good, and in a couple of places brilliant, except where they’re horribly flawed. I played in a different team to Sam so it wasn’t simply a matter of one game going badly wrong. One confusing puzzle we eventually solved with some heavy hinting to help us focus on the right type of approach; two others we solved by being told outright the key piece of information, one of which the operator afterwards admitted he couldn’t remember how we were supposed to find.
The game also includes what may well be the single toughest task I’ve seen in an escape game, which if you do solve it then makes you do it again, and then a third time. It sounds like most teams only get given two iterations of this, but even then it would extend beyond its welcome. My team were shaking our heads at the sheer unreasonableness of it, and then almost despairing when we finally got it only to find we had to do it again, and then again. Eventually we found a rhythm and it changed from dauntingly depressing to exhaustingly pleasing. I guess I can’t really object to the difficulty given that both our teams did eventually get past it, but still, my main reaction to it remains, you have got to be kidding!
And yet, the task with the crazy difficulty was also beautiful, and rewarding to finally beat. The game has a flair for its visuals and in the way it progresses that makes me inclined to view its flaws very indulgently. It hints at a larger story than is revealed in the game, perhaps because there’s a sequel game under construction. Despite all the problems that got in the way of us progressing through the game, I still came out and encouraged our other group to play it as well. The things that Sam hated would be relatively easy to fix with some tweaks to the game, and that would turn it into an excellent experience; and even if the operators keep it exactly as it was when we visited, I’d still suggest picking it over a more typical and mediocre game.